Decibel Books recently announced our pre-order for USBM: A Revolution of Identity in American Black Metal, and today were proud to share the first excerpt from this 544-page hardcover behemoth authored by longtime contributor Daniel Lake (with foreword by Tom Gabriel Warrior). The following section explores the misogynist and racist behavior and other character flaws of some of USBM’s most prominent artists.
Before we can engage in an honest exploration of black metal’s history in America, we must first be fully aware of the genre’s nauseating and not incidental association with misogynist, racist and homophobic tendencies. Black metal is not misogynist, racist or homophobic music, but it can be ideologically driven music, and that very fact yokes us with a responsibility to investigate those principles. Most of the artists covered in these pages stand staunchly in support of universal human rights and advancing the political power of historically marginalized people, and some of the voices in this book are activists in their own right. Nonetheless, if we are to accept liberally informed views as representative of a greater societal good, we must frankly confront less generous approaches. Black metal has long stood for what is evil and misanthropic in the hearts of its purveyors, and it is not so easy to brush those ugly lodestones aside.
Which lodestones do we mean? What darkness has tunneled its way through the musical veneer and poured into artists’ lives? It might be useful to separate these antisocial tendencies between those who have championed regressive ideologies versus those who have actively engaged in criminal activities. In the former category, we have Grand Belial’s Key, who, while considered one of the most influential American bands of the ’90s black metal scene, have used strongly anti-Semitic language in lyrics and titles, and have covered songs by openly Nazi punk band Chaos 88. Andy “Akhenaten” Harris of Judas Iscariot has issued murkily racist statements in interviews, professing his belief that “the Aryan race [is] the most beautiful and the closest to physical perfection.” Black noise band Nyogthaeblisz and Jason “Dagon” Weirbach of Inquisition contributed songs to a compilation called Declaration of Anti-Semetic Terror on a label called Satanic Skinhead Propaganda. Trans guitarist Melissa “Vis Crom” Moore was ejected from Absu for her identity, and Russ “Proscriptor McGovern” Givens broke up the band rather than support her. John Haughm of Agalloch made a tasteless public comment that conflated Jewish culture with politically controlling behavior, for which he has apologized on multiple occasions. Neill Jameson of Krieg put out a split release with Satanic Warmaster, then loaded up the liner notes with racist language, which he has since repented.
Other high-profile members of the community have exhibited transgressive behavior that carries actual legal consequences. Blake Judd of Nachtmystium was so possessed by a heroin habit that he stole from friends and fans multiple times. Inquisition’s Weirbach was also the target of an investigation involving the possession and transmission of child pornography, which resulted in a guilty plea deal. False guitarist Jimmy Claypool, himself a sexual assault victim, has been accused of—and has admitted to—perpetuating the cycle of abuse by sexually assaulting multiple others; after that fact became public, he appeared to accept accountability, whatever that might mean for his future. False imploded immediately upon learning the news.
The character flaws that lead to such shredding of the social contract are not unique to black metal, but we need to examine the issue precisely because black metal was never meant to be as vapid and inconsequential as more commercial music. Some of us come to this music for the express purpose of exorcising the negativity within us, to overextend muscles and throats and electrical equipment and the very air itself in order to wrestle our personal anguish into forms that will not harm ourselves or others. We use this music to rage against the injustices that surround us, not compound them. Evidence for this exists in the sheer number of artists included here who contributed to Overgrow to Overthrow, a compilation whose sole purpose is to raise money for the forces of positive revolutionary change: Panopticon, Obsequiae, Krallice, Alda, Falls of Rauros, Woe, Nechochwen, Chaos Moon and, again, Neill Jameson of Krieg. Some members of black metal’s loose confederation seek to lead the way toward a society that works, so that black metal’s hate-fuel might not be expended in vain.
But where do the most selfish, illiberal antics of black metal come from?
“We’re fucked-up people,” fires off Paul Delaney, bassist and vocalist of Black Anvil. “Black metal is offensive. Shit may offend you. Does somebody want to go to a show and see dead, rotten animals all over the place? That’s why I connected to it, and punk and hardcore—because I was an outcast. A lot of people did shit to provoke when times weren’t as fiery. It’s not that deep. I think it’s childish to have that shit in your music. Am I going to go out of my way to take them down? No. I think they make themselves look like assholes as it is.”
“Inherent in black metal is that it’s a hateful art form,” says Odin Thompson, owner of Moribund Records. “It’s a music filled with hate—hate towards religion and the oppression that religion brings. No religion is sacred—not even Satanism, ultimately. If anyone wants to take something and become dogmatic with it, then it’s open for attack. The scene has always been about that, so people might want to misinterpret that hate as being hate against a people or a region or something other than a religion, but that would be quite narrow-minded and myopic of them, because ultimately, black metal has disdain for all modern society, regardless of the nation someone comes from, someone’s ethnicity and so on.”
Aesop Dekker is clear about his personal stance, but less interested in dictating it to others: “Being in a punk scene, I’ve grown up vehemently anti-racist. However, I think it’s a tall order to want or expect all art to come from good people, or to limit yourself to art that’s made by good people. Do I want to hang out with [racists]? No. Do I want to give them my money? No. That’s something I’ve wrestled with, but I’m very careful about what bands my bands play with, what promoters I work with. Everyone has to make their own choices about it. We’re not in a place where we should condemn people for how they want to approach that. We definitely should condemn Nazis, but we shouldn’t condemn people for liking a record or wearing a T-shirt. That’s not racism.”
The line between the two is thin enough to draw blood if you touch it, which is why it can be so difficult to have low-temperature conversations about where that line should be drawn. Some bands have been attacked for their several-degrees-distant associations with distasteful organizations, or held accountable for momentarily poor choices that do not reflect their world views. In 2009, Scion Rock Fest cut Nachtmystium from the bill because of complaints that the band had ties to Nazi record labels and tour companions. As Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead relates, “I was at Blake’s house when he got the phone call from Scion Fest that, ‘You guys aren’t playing because somebody called.’ Because he put out a record on Unholy Records which was part of Resistance Records. He was a kid, he was 16, but they were like, ‘You let him play, we’re going to make sure everybody knows that the Scion car company is supporting a Nazi.’ So, flights were canceled, hotels were canceled, have a nice weekend at home.” In the aftermath, Judd released an unambiguous statement that included the following remarks: “We have canceled tours in the past and dodged working with bands and people BECAUSE they had these ideologies and we never wanted to be affiliated with it… we ARE NOT a Nazi band, ARE NOT political, are certainly NOT racists and DO NOT support that world or any band, person or business affiliated with it.”
Eight years later, Woe lost the opportunity to play in Germany because they had performed at the same show as Inquisition, who were considered suspect for their actions. Woe also hammered out a statement that gave no quarter to the idea that they were themselves at fault, excerpted here: “For years, we have been exceptionally vocal about our [liberal] political and social stances, but still careful to not let them define us as a band. Along the way, we introduced countless black metal fans who had never considered politics [to the notion] that it is possible to take an anti-fascist stance without sacrificing the harsh, abrasive stance of a black metal band. Black metal encourages questioning systems, offending those in power and evolving beyond outdated beliefs. If we were to only play to crowds who were squeaky clean, nothing would change, nobody would grow. If we choose to participate in an event, it is because we are confident that it does not compromise who we are.”
Black metal is meant to shock the mainstream, as rock ‘n’ roll was meant to do in the middle of the 20th century. In countries where Christianity is taken as a cultural norm, Satanism was enough to scare prim parents and proper churchgoers; indeed, such tactics worked well in the U.S. through the 1980s. As those artists grew and the culture became more savvy, Satan became quaint, and shocking the masses required a new political tack. But what might have begun as posturing to get a reaction often quickly became entrenchment, and these miscreants’ inability to be humble has, at various times, turned into extreme right-wing movements against reason and our common humanity.
Moreover, part of black metal’s appeal is the desire to shovel away the bewildering economic, social and political complexity of the modern world, to reach into our ancestors’ deep past for answers to our nagging questions about identity and purpose. Such introspection, I think, is admirable and necessary in a society that seethes with myriad pressures. Groping for meaning can hardly be maligned when it is done honestly, but when morally confused or intellectually unequipped people fall into traps laid by dishonest or hateful influences, they begin to build their identity and purpose around malevolent ideologies.
The members of Fauna think deeply and carefully about difficult topics, which facilitated a particularly valuable conversation about the infiltration of racist/nationalist conservatism into certain types of music. Their background in anarchist and anti-fascist punk movements blends with their experience in neofolk and black metal to give them an important perspective on the issue.
“Black metal is explicitly opposed to the modern age,” Fauna’s Johnny DeLacy states. “People who align themselves with right wing movements, their view of history is really shallow. It doesn’t occur to them that they live in a country that was a colonial power 100 years ago and that the exploits of their own government created the situation they’re now living in.”
“Identity is a need,” DeLacy says, changing tacks, but making an equally valid point. “We do have this need to belong, and that’s what makes nationalism and racism so virulently dangerous. People are yearning for this connection and they aren’t getting it, especially in the modern-day nation-state. So, people cling to these pretty hollow and pretty historically slanted narratives about who they are, because they don’t have connection to a lineage.”
DeLacy’s bandmate, J. Joshua Phillips, concurs: “Our ancestors in the deep past would have likely experienced more of a group identity than an individual identity. I don’t think we can even understand how stabilizing that was for people. Having lost that, we’re really adrift in a very fundamental way that I don’t think modern people have started to grapple with yet.”
Struggling for identity in the age of the internet can turn into a confused melee with faults all around. “I’m a little disappointed in the internet trolls who are lazy and have nothing to do or say in the scene,” says Paul Thind, founder of Necropolis Records. “I’m also disappointed in the racist bands that have tarnished the image of what the scene was about. When Euronymous was signing bands from all over the world, the intent was to find the darkest music that was aligned with the core values and feeling of what the movement was about. He had friends from all walks of life. I think all of that got lost with his death.”
Grand Belial’s Key have been called out for using such charged language, and though Alex “Gelal Necrosodomy” Halac of Grand Belial’s Key argues vociferously that GBK are not a Nazi band, he has been handing detractors ammunition with each album he records. “For almost 30 years we’ve been dealing with this fallacious interpretation of our work,” he says. “People confuse political ideology with religious ideology, and that’s where the problem is. All our lyrics express an enmity for Judeo-Christianity, and endless sadistic cynicism which mocks and ridicules the religion with a twisted sense of sarcasm. For some asshole to label us anti-Semitic and not label every single other metal band that denounces Christ anti-Semitic is hypocritical. I find it ridiculous [that] for many years now the ‘underground’ will turn a blind eye or tolerate bands who openly express Satanic, nihilistic and perverted views, sing about bestiality, drug abuse and the murder of Christians, and follow like sheep without question, yet will go out of their way to try and clean their guilt by going after anything remotely fascist, nationalist, pagan or folkloric. Ignorant heavy metal friendship ideologues are the ones who have an itch to label us into some sort of political category.”
Part of the problem arises when a musician is unwilling to accept historical context, the real human violence that similar language has wrought upon real people who lived within the last few decades, rather than the last few millennia. Aaron Turner, who participated in the black metal supergroup Twilight and who is most well-known for his time with Isis and Old Man Gloom, states a clear and thoughtful position on the topic: “I think there is definitely some worth in investigating the darker aspects of humanity. There is something that can be therapeutic and even cleansing about that. Turning away from that stuff can be a way of enabling it and letting it continue. Finding a creative outlet for it may be a way of allowing people to express it without having to enact it. In that way, black metal and other forms of metal can be extremely useful. At the same time, there is a line: If you’re putting something out into the public forum, you’ve got to take personal responsibility for that. You can’t be ambiguous about it. You can’t play around with Nazi shit and just say it’s an aesthetic choice. I don’t believe in art that’s being provocative just for the sake of being provocative. It’s hard to be involved with black metal and not be near that shit. It’s an iffy area that needs to be dealt with in a conscientious way.”
Agreed. If an artist is unwilling to account for the language or symbolism being used, maybe it’s not our responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt. Awareness is a necessity and not a luxury in public life, and like it or not, any musician recording and discussing their art has entered public life. If, however, artists accused of foul ideologies choose to speak out about their disgust for such bigotry, we should be willing to believe them. Berating musicians who are loudly unambiguous about their progressive dispositions is its own brand of fascism.
Much of the music covered in these pages is worth celebrating, and some is worth reviling. All told, though, we have reached a moment in which dozens of extraordinary American black metal bands are playing at the top of their game, and the era of that “false black metal” stigma is buried in the smoldering ashes of a 30-year inferno.
Pe-order a copy of the limited edition hardcover of USBM: A Revolution of Identity in American Black Metal right here.